Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

LDESP Middle East News Update – December 2012

LDESP MIDDLE EAST NEWS UPDATE: 21 December 2012

Note: The bimonthly LDESP Iraq News Update has transitioned to the monthly LDESP News Update From the Middle East. The Middle East update will include news coverage from Iran to Egypt. As with all LDESP news briefs, the information contained within the Middle East News update is to increase situational awareness concerning events that may affect your mission. The Middle East update will focus on issues concerning the Gulf and the Levant, including articles central to transatlantic security and stability as well as cultural and economic issues that may impact the region and U.S national interests in the region.

Disclaimer: Articles are taken from established and diverse professional periodicals, news articles, and editorial commentaries from different countries, reflecting a range of political views/biases, that are intended to provide readers with a better understanding of various interests and perspectives regarding the situation in the region. External links may expire at any time depending on the archiving policy of the particular news agency. News summaries may highlight only a portion of an article that is relevant to the readers and may not necessarily be the focus of the entire article or the headline. Opinions expressed in the articles, commentaries and features do not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense, the US Navy, or the LDESP staff.

Weeks ahead of Israeli elections, Palestinian officials are already plotting a series of tough steps against Israel to be taken if, as polls predict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is re-elected and peace efforts remain stalled, a number of Palestinian officials have told the Associated Press. Emboldened by their newly upgraded status at the United Nations, the Palestinians are talking of filing war crimes charges against Israel, staging mass demonstrations in the West Bank, encouraging the international community to impose sanctions, and ending the security cooperation that has helped preserve quiet in recent years. In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, the Palestinian officials all voiced a similar theme: Following the UN General Assembly’s recognition of “Palestine” as a non-member observer state in November, the status quo cannot continue. “2013 will see a new Palestinian political track. There will be new rules in our relationship with Israel and the world,” said Hussam Zumlot, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas. (Haaretz)
From an Israeli perspective, it would appear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial reading of the so-called Arab Spring was closer to reality than that of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders. At first, the awakening of the Arab nations – in an attempt to topple dictatorial regimes that had ruled for decades – was met with justified enthusiasm in the West. However, after two years the gap between hopes and reality is grimly visible. Four of the dictatorships (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen ) have been toppled, while one (in Syria ) is still battling for survival in a murderous civil war. Other regimes (Bahrain, Jordan ) are, for the moment, holding back the tidal wave. Although free elections were held for the first time in Egypt and Tunisia, it is highly doubtful whether they will be held under similar circumstances next time. Nor can one ignore the instability, economic crises and disturbing rise of Islamic movements – all of which place a huge question mark over the hopes for dramatic changes in the Arab world. (…) Both the prime minister’s cautiousness and basic suspicions concerning the intentions of the Arab side find favor in the hearts of the Israeli electorate. Public opinion polls indicate a consistent level of support for the Likud party and its platform. What is helping the rightist-ultra-Orthodox political camp gather electoral strength is not just demography, but also an opinion that is increasingly taking hold in the public: that there is no reason to take any chances (or make big changes ) when volcanoes are erupting all around you. (Haaretz)
A day after the U.S. State Department strongly condemned Israel’s plans to build a 1,500-unit settlement in East Jerusalem, Israel announced it would continue a plan to build settlements in other East Jerusalem neighborhoods. On 19 December, initial approval for a total of up to 3,000 homes in Jerusalem was granted. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of foreign ambassadors from Asia-Pacific countries he met with on 19 December, while overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City: “The walls that you see behind me represent the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that. That’s a natural thing.” He went on to say: “Imagine that you had to limit construction in your own capital; it doesn’t make sense.” The significance of building in East Jerusalem is that Palestinians have long hoped to make it their capital in a future Palestinian state that would include the West Bank and Gaza. In 1967, Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem, an action never recognized internationally and long condemned by Palestinians as an obstacle to a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On 18 December, Israel announced that settlement building in Ramat Shlomo would continue, a plan originally announced in 2010. Back then, the announcement, which coincided with a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, angered and embarrassed the United States. At the time, the U.S. had brokered indirect talks between Palestinians and Israel that it hoped would reinvigorate the peace process, but the settlement building announcement prompted the Palestinians to pull out of the talks. There have not been peace talks since. (CNN)
December is a time of celebration in Israel when the candles of Hanukah light the way to the festivities of Christmas and the Western New Year beyond. So intense is the concentrated spirit of goodwill that the Israeli government shrugs off the baggage of its sometimes fractious relationship with the international media to hold a reception for members of the foreign press. An uncharacteristically genial Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided over proceedings, somehow managing to draw attention to his knowledge of Chaucer and enjoying a Question-and-Answer session with the journalists. There was one bit he particularly enjoyed. When a foreign TV producer asked about an opinion poll that showed 81% of Israelis expect him to re-emerge from January’s election as prime minister he asked him to say the question again. The journalist was half-way through repeating the statistic in a slightly louder voice when he realised that a smiling Mr Netanyahu was just relishing the sound of it being said out loud. The Israeli prime minister of course was quick to follow it up by underlining the credentials behind that remarkable figure. “I do what I think is necessary to defend the state of Israel,” he said. ” I don’t think the Jews are going to be given another chance in history.” (BBC)
Israel’s Central Elections Committee was debating on 19 December a slew of petitions calling for the disqualification of various parties from participating in the forthcoming general elections, and according to assessments was likely to endorse one of the most controversial of those petitions — to disqualify the Balad party and its firebrand parliamentarian Hanin Zoabi. Other challenges are being leveled at the United Arab List party, the ultra-Orthodox factions, and the far-right Otzma Leyisrael party. The petition against Zoabi, which is being spearheaded by Likud MK Ofir Akunis, claims that the Arab Israeli Knesset member undermined the state and its institutions, including the IDF, by participating in the Mavi Marmara flotilla that tried to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. Balad and the United Arab List party are also accused of supporting the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel. Although Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein wrote earlier this week that there weren’t sufficient grounds to disqualify any of the candidates, a survey of committee members — the chairman of the body is Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein — indicated that the petition against Zoabi and Balad would be endorsed. However, any move to disqualify a party or politician has to pass muster in the Supreme Court, which in 2009 overturned a Central Elections Committee decision to ban Balad. (Times of Israel)
Egyptians vote on 22 December in the second round of a highly contentious referendum on a new constitution to replace the one suspended after the 2011 revolution. Here are some basic facts and figures on the vote. (…) In the first round, held on Dec. 15, preliminary results showed a low turnout of 32 percent, with 56 percent voting “yes” for the constitution in voting that took place in 10 provinces, including the two biggest cities Cairo and Alexandria. Among the areas voting is Cairo’s twin city of Giza, capital of the province of the same name, Egypt’s third most populated with nearly 4 million registered voters. Also voting will be Nile Delta provinces in which Islamists who back the charter enjoy large constituencies, such as Beheira with 3 million registered voters. The “no” vote could be stronger in the three Suez Canal cities — Port Said, Ismailia and Suez — and the Nile Delta province of Menoufia. The ballot paper has two options: “agree” in light blue circle or “don’t agree” in brown circle. Rights groups and opposition filed complaints citing violations marring the vote, including attempts to suppress “no” voters. The main international group that monitored previous Egyptian votes, the Carter Center, is not deploying observers this time around. Egyptian law requires judges at each poll station to monitor. Despite a boycott by many judges, authorities say they have 7,000 judges to cover the 6,700 polling stations. (Fox News, Associated Press)
Supporters of President Mohamed Mursi and his opponents hurled rocks at each other in Egypt’s second city on the eve of a final vote on an Islamist-influenced constitution that has divided the country. Police fired tear gas to separate scores of opponents of the constitution and thousands of Islamists who clashed in the rain near a mosque in Alexandria on 21 December. Health officials said 32 people were injured. “God is great,” Islamists chanted as the clashes began. The Islamists had gathered in support of an Islamic vision of Egypt’s future a day before a second round of voting in a referendum on the basic law. Opposition supporters had also turned out as worshippers assembled for Friday prayers. Mursi and his Islamist allies back the draft constitution as a vital step in Egypt’s transition to democracy almost two years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The opposition says the draft, drawn up by an Islamist-dominated assembly, is a recipe for deeper divisions and more violence. The Muslim Brotherhood called for the rally in Alexandria to protest after a violent confrontation between Islamists and the liberal, secular opposition in mid-December ended with a Muslim preacher besieged inside his mosque for 14 hours. (…) The run-up to the final round of voting on the new constitution on 22 December has been marked by often violent protests that have cost at least eight lives. The first round on 15 December produced a “yes” vote that is expected to be repeated in the second round. (Reuters)
The retraction of his resignation by Prosecutor General Talaat Ibrahimon 20 December has sparked further confusion within Egypt’s judiciary. When Mr Ibrahim announced his resignation on 17 December it was welcomed by the Judges’ Club, an unofficial body that represents the judiciary, and opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei of the National Salvation Front. His decision followed protests outside his office by judges who were angry that he had been appointed by President Mohammed Morsi, and not by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), which handles administrative affairs and judicial appointments. The dismissal of Mr Ibrahim’s predecessor, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, was announced in a presidential decree on 22 November which triggered widespread outrage. Mr Morsi’s constitutional declaration stated that his decisions were “final and unchallengeable by any individual or body” until a new constitution had been approved in a referendum and fresh parliamentary elections held. It also said the constitutional drafting assembly could not be dissolved by the judiciary, pre-empting a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). Liberals, Christians and secularists had complained the assembly was dominated by Islamists. Judges condemned the decree, describing it as a “violation of the judiciary’s independence”, and those working at the Court of Cassation and Court of Appeal suspended all work until it was rescinded. (BBC)
Egypt’s governorates are gearing up to vote on 22 December 2012 in the second round of referendum on the draft constitution. In the governorates, preparations have been near complete for the referendum on the nation’s new constitution. Egypt’s military has assumed responsibility for protecting state institutions and maintaining security during the two stages of the constitutional referendum. The first stage of the referendum took place on 15 December where an estimated 31 percent of voters in 10 governorates went to the polls. Emergency has been stepped up for the second stage, to take place on 22 December, in the 17 governorates of Giza, Qalyubia, Menofia, Beheira, Kafr El-Sheikh, Damietta, Ismailia, Port Said, Suez, Matrouh, the Red Sea, New Valley Beni Suef, Fayyoum, Minya, Luxor and Qena. (All Africa, Egypt State Information Service)
Egypt will resume pumping natural gas to Jordan at about 250 million cubic feet per day, following Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s visit to the Jordanian capital. Qandil arrived in Amman on 20 December to hold talks with his Jordanian counterpart on developing strong bilateral relations as well as strengthening economic ties between the two countries. Egypt halted natural gas exports to Jordan in March after several gas pipelines were blown up in the Sinai Peninsula. Furthermore, the government had publicly noted on several occasions the increased local consumption of natural gas. Jordan, which depends on Egyptian gas for 80 per cent of its energy needs, was forced to switch to fossil fuels to compensate for the stoppage. (Ahram)
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi will succeed in pushing through a contentious new constitution drafted by his Muslim Brotherhood backers, but the political turmoil that has polarized Egypt is far from over. Tensions remain so high, and frustrations so deep, that some people are looking to the powerful military for help. On 21 December, the eve of the second stage of voting in the two-part referendum that will approve their new fundamentalist-leaning charter, Muslim Brotherhood members plan a massive march after midday prayers in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria – a show of force bound to raise national tensions. All this leads many in the opposition to think the unthinkable and call for Egypt’s army to step in. And the army, viewed recently with suspicion, has launched a campaign to convince the public it is the people’s friend. Throughout Cairo there are billboards showing a soldier in full kit cradling a baby in his left arm. The line underneath reads: “The Army, The People: One Hand” “I think the army would be better than these guys,” said Walid Hamada, 33, a small-business owner who was out protesting at the presidential palace this week against the Islamist nature of the proposed constitution. “The army could do a better job keeping things stable while we move to real democracy and a more balanced constitution.” Hard as it is to imagine, “a lot of people feel this way,” said Emad Gad, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Hard to imagine, indeed, because it was the same army that was the power behind Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, and the army that held power in the 17 months after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster early last year. At that time, there were frequent protests against the military rule. “They don’t really like the army,” Mr. Gad explained, “but they prefer it to what’s happening now.” (The Globe and Mail)
In the first of two referendum votes, Egyptians approved a new constitution by a slim margin. Should it pass round two, one lawyer believes that the consequences for Egypt’s women will be wide-ranging and severe. She’s a feminist and a Muslim, she fights for women’s rights wearing beige slacks and a bright red headscarf. Nihad Abu El Konsam is perhaps the best evidence that Egypt’s women can be followers of the Koran and yet still see eye-to-eye with their male counterparts. Yet Egypt’s Nile region has always been the exception, the lawyer and chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) admits. Abu El Konsam worries that the Islamists currently in power in Cairo will use a newly drafted constitution reverse the forward march of Egyptian history. “It’s a disaster. There isn’t a single article in the draft constitution that mentions the rights of women,” said Nihan Abu El Konsam. “We lawyers have made numerous proposals for constitutional articles that would make up for the social and cultural problems in our society and would allow women to finally achieve equal rights. But the Islamists ignored it.” Only in article 10 of the Egyptian constitutional draft is the role of women in Egypt briefly touched upon – and only then in their “important role as a mother,” the lawyer said. (Deutsche Welle)
Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians took to the streets in the Maspero section of Cairo to protest the government’s failure to protect them from attacks on their churches. While the protests began peacefully, violence ensued after the Christians were attacked by civilians. The Egyptian military exacerbated the situation when army personnel carriers plowed through the crowds, crushing protesters as soldiers fired on unarmed civilians. This horrifying massacre occurred on Oct. 9, 2011. What began as a peaceful protest to express frustration over attacks on Coptic churches ended in the staggering loss of innocent human life. Nearly 30 protesters died, many of them Copts, and 500 people were injured on that tragic day. The Rev. Filopater Gameel, a Coptic priest and eyewitness to the Maspero massacre, stated that “tens of thousands were devastated as they watched innocent civilians crushed and shot to death, and their only crime was participating in a peaceful march to reject the destruction of their church.” Now, after the election of Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the Copts are terrified about their fate in Egypt. Since the Maspero attack, not one member of the Egyptian armed services has been convicted. In fact, the Egyptian panel responsible for leading the investigations closed the case because of a supposed “lack of identification of the culprits.” (Washington Times)
For years, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has been one of the most influential shows on American television. Similar programs have popped up all over the globe, and now it’s Egypt’s turn. Bassem Youssef is the host of “Al Bernameg,” (“The Program”), and you don’t have to speak Arabic to see the similarities between Stewart and Youseff. Their studios and even their mannerisms look the same. A trained heart surgeon, Youssef started the satirical show from his apartment and posted his work on YouTube. It became so popular that a major Egyptian channel picked it up. Youssef is not scared to take on anybody, even Egypt`s new president, Mohamed Morsy, whom Youssef dubbed “SuperMorsi” in a recent program. (…) His sense is that President Morsy, along with other Egyptian politicians, are accepting the show quite well. “I think this is actually the best time to have a political satire program in Egypt,” Youssef told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on 20 December. “Basically we are the drama queen of the world, with everything happening. We’re kind of the international political soap opera. So it`s a great time and era to have a political satire to comment on everything that’s happening,” he said. (CNN)
The Desert Locust situation is threatening along both sides of the Red Sea where winter breeding is in progress in Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Groups of adults and small swarms arrived on the coast last month from summer breeding areas in the interior of Sudan and laid eggs. Hatching occurred recently and hoppers are forming small groups and bands in sub coastal areas of Wadi Diib in northeast Sudan and southeast Egypt and in nearby coastal areas of Egypt. Egg-laying is continuing in Egypt and control operations are in progress. So far, infestations are confined only to the aforementioned areas. Elsewhere, low numbers of adults are present in the Tokar Delta, Sudan. In Saudi Arabia, egg-laying and hatching occurred on the coast north of Jeddah, and control operations are in progress against hopper bands that are forming. More hatching is expected in the coming weeks. In the Western Region, locust infestations continue to decline in the northern Sahel of Mali, Niger and Chad. Nevertheless, groups of hoppers and adults persist in northern Niger where control operations continue. Control operations also continue in western Mauritania against hopper and adult groups. In Morocco, small-scale breeding continues in the southern part of the Western Sahara where small groups of egg-laying adults were treated. More hatching and the formation of small hopper groups and bands are expected in the coming weeks. In Algeria, control teams treated small groups of hoppers and egg-laying adults in the extreme south along the border of Mali and Niger. (UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Official sources in Jordan have expressed the government’s fear of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in neighbouring Syria. “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is concerned about the rise of Brotherhood groups in the Arab world, and it fears that Syria may come under an Islamist government,” they told Al-Hayat newspaper on condition of anonymity. “Any political influence for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood will have a direct impact on the Brotherhood in Jordan, and will raise the ceiling of their demands for reform, especially the call to undermine the powers of King Abdullah II.” Jordanian Islamists have been demanding political and economic reforms and constitutional amendments since January 2011. They wish to cut the power of the ruling Royal Family, especially with regards to the appointment and dismissal of the government and members of the upper house in parliament. (Middle East Monitor)
Just a few weeks ago, fuel commodities in Jordan – including diesel – were sold at prices close to their actual cost. Cooking gas was even priced below market rates. This made it difficult for the Jordanian treasury to generate revenues from the sale of fuel commodities (with the exception of premium gasoline). But in mid-November, the country’s budget deficit reached alarming levels. According to the Jordanian Ministry of Finance, in the first nine months of 2012, the country’s loan-financed deficit stood at around $3.5 billion, roughly 16 percent of GDP. The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Nsour was forced to raise prices by reducing subsidies in order to preserve the stability of the economy and hence the Jordanian dinar. The price hike was pushed through despite the concerns of the security services about the threat of violent protest. These fears were well-founded. Recent protests in Jordan have resembled reactions to previous experiments in subsidy reduction, all of which were eventually withdrawn under intense public pressure. The reaction to earlier reform attempts took Jordan by storm, with various regions of the country rocked by spontaneous protest. Two months ago, for instance, the interim government of Fayez al-Tarawneh attempted to make good on its pledge to raise fuel prices. Public backlash led Jordan’s King Abdullah II to intervene, and the government withdrew the price hike just one day after its announcement. Jordanians took to the streets even before the prime minister finished his announcement and justifications for increasing the prices. Political tension, corruption, and injustice all exacerbated the crisis, especially because subsidy reduction was not tied to a comprehensive economic policy or blueprint for serious political reform. Many Jordanians also complained about mismanaged public spending and the absence of government transparency. But the problem is more severe this time as Jordan has fewer financial alternatives and offers of aid to fall back on. Promises of aid and facilitated loans from some Arab states have already fallen through. Worse, an agreement with the IMF constrains the government’s ability to maneuver, leaving little room for compromise. (Middle East Voices, Voice of America)
More than 200 people have been detained in Jordan after taking part in anti-austerity protests in November. The protests, which erupted over the price of cooking gas and other basic supplies across the country, were the largest and most sustained to hit Jordan since the start of uprisings in the region nearly two years ago. Authorities threatened to crack down on those who incite violence during protests with an “iron fist”, while opposition groups pledged to continue demonstrations in the kingdom. Now Jordanians are left to deal with the aftermath of the government response. Some jailed protesters say they were mistreated while in detention, and the National Centre for Human Rights has issued a report saying that some demonstrators were beaten while in custody. (Al Jazeera)
On a sunny Friday afternoon, about 70 protesters make their way down the main street of this small town in southern Jordan, snarling traffic on the narrow road and drawing black looks from motorists. More or less the whole town has just emerged from Friday prayer, and the street is packed with people shopping, chatting, or heading home for lunch. Many simply stand and watch the protesters go by, with expressions ranging from admiration to curiosity to derision. The Tafileh governorate is the smallest in Jordan, with a population of only 85,000 people. Its central city is geographically isolated, in a hilly area bypassed by both of the country’s main north-south highways. It’s hard to imagine a tiny protest in this tiny town making waves across the kingdom – but a series of demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, punctuated by arrests and clashes with the police, did just that. While the protests in Amman have been far larger, it is Tafileh that makes the Jordanian government nervous.
The town has a reputation for loyalty to the regime. Unlike the big urban centers, which are heavily populated with Jordanians of Palestinian origin, most of Tafileh’s residents are East Bank Jordanians, from the big southern tribes still regarded as the bulwark of support for Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy. East Bankers have long received the lion’s share of government jobs, and make up the backbone of Jordan’s police and security services. Essentially, analysts say, if protests can take hold in Tafileh, there’s a good chance the foundations of the regime are shaky. (Christian Science Monitor)
Jordan’s King Abdullah II expressed his optimism about his country’s future despite the recent protests against the government’s lifting of fuel subsidies and Islamist-led opposition’s call for radical political and economic reforms. “Despite the difficult situation we are in, I am optimistic about the future. God willing, we will overcome this crisis,” King Abdullah II said in an interview published on Al Rai and Jordan Times. The monarch insists that the crisis can be contained through taking strong measures such as controlling government spending and public funds, rationalising energy consumption and fighting corruption. (Middle East Online)
The patchwork of Sunni Muslim and Shiite villages arrayed along the northern border with Syria are heavily embroiled in the protracted struggle there, but with a distinctive twist. Fighters from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite movement, cross the frontier to fight for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who is Alawite and whose sect dominates the government. Sunni Muslims sneak over to join the opposition. Once back home in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, however, both sides observe an uneasy truce. “Inside they are slaughtering us, but as soon as we cross into Lebanon there is nothing between us,” said Abdullah, 22, a stocky Sunni farmer who now toils as both a fighter and a smuggler, using only one name to protect his identity. “I would say it is something normal to fight on the other side, given that we are against the regime while they are with it.” Yet the confrontation over controlling the strategic border throws off sparks that could ignite a bigger conflagration given that it is part of the Sunni-Shiite contest to dominate the Middle East. “There is already a kind of chaos along the border which neither Lebanon nor Syria fully controls, so there is a fear that it will spread into Lebanon,” said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese academic and expert on Arab-Iranian relations. (…) Accusations that Hezbollah deployed several thousand fighters across Syria started soon after the uprising erupted in March 2011, not least because its Iranian-supplied arsenal and years of fighting Israel had forged it into one of the most able armed forces in the region. But interviews with more than a dozen government officials, members of Parliament, fighters and analysts suggested a far more limited, but concentrated, engagement. Hezbollah fighters have been sent to Syria to protect areas important to Shiite Muslims, ranging from a couple of Shiite villages near Aleppo to the tomb of Sayida Zeinab in Damascus, a holy pilgrimage site for the sect, analysts said. Hezbollah has also advised the Syrian Army on strategy and tactics for urban warfare, as well as training, they said. (New York Times)
Several roads were flooded on 21 December, causing traffic jams in some parts of Lebanon after two days of heavy rain. There was some respite on 21 December but that ended when torrential downpours swept parts of the country again. The torrential downpours have forced the shutdown of Sidon and Tyre ports in southern Lebanon for the second day straight. The storm was not as severe as the previous day’s heavy rain, causing damage to only a few agricultural greenhouses along the southern coast. Overnight rainwater caused landslides that led to the brief closure of the Rmeileh highway linking Beirut to Sidon. (The Daily Star)
The Iraqi Minister of Commerce Dr Khairallah Hassan Babaker on 20 December received Bahrain’s ambassador to Iraq Salah Ali Al Maleky. During the meeting both sides reviewed several investment related topics through the increase of the volume of trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, the minister expressed his readiness to setup a one day event in which investment opportunities in Iraq could be presented for both the public and private sector in the Kingdom of Bahrain. For his part the Bahrain’s ambassador affirmed the country’s keenness towards further bolstering cooperation with Iraq in the fields of commerce and trade. (Bahrain News Agency)
Syria’s main opposition group, the National Coalition, denounced on 21 December an Iranian peace initiative as a “desperate attempt to prolong the life of the regime.” Tehran, the most powerful regional ally of the embattled Assad regime, detailed a six-point peace initiative on 16 December, according to Iranian media reports. The plan did not envisage the fall of the regime, but instead called for “an immediate halt to violence and armed actions under the supervision of the United Nations.” It also called for sanctions against Syria to be lifted, the start of national dialogue, the establishment of a transitional government, and free elections. “The regime and its allies keep on launching lackluster and overdue political initiatives. The Iranian initiative represents one example of these desperate attempts to throw a lifeline to the inevitably sinking ship of the Assad regime,” the National Coalition said in a statement obtained by Al Arabiya. “The Iranian regime refuses to believe that what is happening in Syria is a revolution whose goal is liberation from the authoritarian and oppressive regime, and that this revolution is about to achieve complete victory,” the statement added. The National Coalition, which was formed in Qatar last month, has been recognized by dozens of states as the sole and legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 as a pro-reform protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring but transformed into an armed uprising after the Assad government began brutally crushing demonstrations. More than 44,000 people have been killed so far, monitors say. (Al Arabiya)
Saudi Arabia has invited Pakistan’s foreign minister to Riyadh to discuss bilateral relations and, reportedly, to persuade Islamabad to cancel its gas pipeline project with Iran. Hina Rabbani Khar has accepted the invitation and plans to fly to the kingdom “soon,” though no timetable has been set. The Express Tribune reported that the Saudis are gravely concerned about Pakistan’s growing trade and diplomatic relations with its regional arch-enemy, Iran. Part of that deepening relationship involves a plan for Pakistan to import natural gas, as well as crude oil, from Iran in exchange for long-term deferred payments. The U.S. is also concerned by Pakistan’s closer ties to Tehran. Increasingly isolated by Western sanctions over its nuclear power ambitions, Iran desperately needs customers for its huge oil and gas industries. The Iranians have not only offered Pakistan generous terms on these energy deals, but also proposed to start various other energy projects. The current gas pipeline project will cost a reported $7.5 billion – and Iran will pick up the entire tab. Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim majority state, has long enjoyed good relations with the Sunni-ruled Saudis. A move by Pakistan to cozy up to Shia-dominated Iran would anger both Riyadh and Washington. (…) Pakistani media suggested that the Saudis may offer an energy deal even more attractive than the one the Iranians have placed on the table. Khar is expected to meet with Prince Saud Al Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, although the exact itinerary has not yet been released. It is doubtful that the Saudis can persuade Khar to abandon Pakistan’s energy projects with Iran. (International Business Times)
The Palestinian Authority and Jordan agreed 6 December to launch talks to discuss economic and political cooperation between the two sides. The agreement was announced during a brief visit to Ramallah by Jordan’s King Abdullah. This was the first visit to Ramallah by a head of state since the UN General Assembly voted in favor of upgrading the Palestinians’ status to non-member observer state. Abdullah held talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian officials in the Mukata compound. PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki said the king’s visit to Ramallah was aimed at coordinating positions on various issues in the wake of the UN vote. He said the two sides were in full agreement on all issues. Malki announced that the Ramallah Municipality has decided to name a square after Abdullah in appreciation of Jordan’s support for the Palestinians. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, who accompanied the monarch on his visit, hailed the UN vote as an “historic achievement.” He said the king came to Ramallah to be the first leader to congratulate Abbas on the outcome of the vote. Judeh voiced hope that Palestine would one day become a full member of the UN. (Jerusalem Post)
Syrian rebels warned on 21 December they will target the international airport of the northern city of Aleppo after firing at an airliner preparing to take off, the first direct attack on civilian a flight in the 21-month-old revolt. The 20 December attack was another sign of the growing confidence of rebels who are also fighting an offensive in the central province of Hama, pursuing a string of territorial gains to try to cut army supply lines and pressure the capital Damascus to the south. A rebel commander who gave his name as Khaldoun told Reuters by Skype that snipers from the Intelligence Armed Struggle Battalion, part of the Islamist Jundallah brigade, had hit the wheels of Syrian Airways flight RB201 on 20 December. “Those were warning shots,” he said, adding that the plane had been unable to take off. “We wanted to send a message to the regime that all their planes – military and civilian – are within our reach.” There was no immediate mention of the incident on Syrian state media. Rebels accuse the government of using civilian aircraft to transport weapons and Iranian fighters who they say are helping President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Insurgents have cut off many of the road links to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. Fighting around Damascus has made the road to the capital’s international airport unsafe for traffic. Foreign airlines have stopped flying there. According to flight schedules, the Cairo-bound RB201 usually flies from Damascus rather than Aleppo. “What happened with Damascus airport will happen to Aleppo, even if the price is higher,” Khaldoun said. (Reuters)
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have resumed firing Scud ballistic missiles against rebel positions in recent days, American officials said on 20 December. “We’ve been clear that we have seen the regime in Syria use Scud missiles against its own people, and that continues,” a senior State Department official said. American officials said that was no indication that the missiles were armed with chemical weapons. They had no information on possible casualties. Contacts inside Syria said that one Scud attack took place on 20 November near Maara, a town in a rebel-held area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. The missile appeared to have missed its target, and the initial accounts were that nobody was hurt. American officials, who have been monitoring Mr. Assad’s military actions via aerial surveillance and other methods, did not corroborate those details but disclosed that the Scud firings, which they first reported last week, had resumed. (…) The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, later issued a statement denying that Syria had used Scuds. It called the reports “untrue rumors.” (…) NATO recently approved the deployment of American, Dutch and Germany Patriot antimissile batteries to Turkey, a neighbor of Syria that has become one of Mr. Assad’s most ardent critics, to protect against a possible Syrian missile attack. The United States is sending two Patriot batteries and 400 troops to operate them. (New York Times)
President Vladimir V. Putin on 20 December strongly defended Russia’s implacable opposition to military intervention in Syria and he sharply chastised the United States for its role in toppling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, describing that outcome as a mistake that created chaos and ultimately led to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi. Mr. Putin, responding to a question at his annual end-of-year news conference, rejected an assertion that Russia was making a mistake, potentially isolating itself and at risk of losing influence in the Middle East, by opposing intervention in Syria, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad is now nearly two years old. Mr. Putin pointed to Libya as his evidence that intervention by the NATO alliance of Western nations had caused more harm than good. (…) Mr. Putin insisted that Russia was not acting in defense of President Assad of Syria, but rather to preserve stability. “We are not concerned with the fate of Assad’s regime,” he said. “Of course, changes are being demanded but it’s something else that concerns – what will happen next?” His remarks about Syria came as United Nations human rights investigators said in a new report that the Syria crisis had evolved from a battle to oust Mr. Assad into more of a sectarian conflict, pitting entire communities against each other and pulling in fighters from the Middle East and North Africa. (…) Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, has used its veto authority as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, both to block more aggressive intervention sought by the United States and many other countries and to defend the sovereignty of the Assad government. But in recent days, the Kremlin has sounded increasingly pessimistic about Mr. Assad’s retention of power, and Russian officials have acknowledged developing contingency plans to evacuate Russia citizens from Syria. Thousands of Syrian men who attended universities in Russia and returned to live in Syria have Russian wives. (New York Times)
Days of intense fighting in a Palestinian refugee camp subsided on 20 December and some of the more than 100,000 residents who fled the violence in the capital Damascus began to trickle back, activists and officials said. (…) In Damascus, where rebels are posing an increasing challenge in Assad’s seat of power, fighting has been raging for days in the Yarmouk refugee camp. It began when pro- and anti-regime elements within the camp began clashing in mid-December. (…) More than two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 Palestinian residents have fled the camp since mid-December when the fighting flared up, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. They sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, in other parts of Damascus or other cities, or headed to the Syrian-Lebanon border, it said. Hundreds trickled back on 20 December. One of the first people to return was Zeina Abbas, 42, who fled to Damascus. She said by telephone that nearly 1,000 people return to their homes and added that that she saw rebels in the streets. (…) The rebel offensive in the camp, which began on 14 December, was aimed at driving out pro-government Palestinian gunmen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Several Syria-based Palestinian factions called on Palestinians who fled to return to the camp in a statement on 20 December saying “it will be a safe area.” (New York Daily News, Associated Press)
The United Nations has launched humanitarian plans worth $1.5 billion to help ease the suffering of millions of Syrians both inside and outside the country. More than 525,000 Syrians have already crossed into neighboring countries, the United Nations announced on 19 December, and it estimated that more than a million will flee in the next six months. The body believes that a quarter of Syria’s population needs food, shelter, medical attention, hygiene materials, clothes and other relief after enduring nearly two years of war. The United Nations is also asking for more than $520 million in additional aid, anticipating that the situation will only get worse in 2013. That amount, officials believe, will help contribute to aid for an estimated 4 million people inside Syria who urgently need help. The number of residents suffering has quadrupled from 1 million in March 2012 to 4 million in December, the United Nations reported on 19 December. Many have fled. Between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees are crossing into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq every day, according to the United Nations. Plans to help Syria have changed much over the past several months, which is “indicative of the rapid developments on the ground and the dramatically deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria with the United Nations. “The magnitude of this humanitarian crisis is indisputable.” (CNN)
Fighters from around the world have filtered into Syria to join a civil war that has split along sectarian lines, increasingly pitting the ruling Alawite community against the majority Sunni Muslims, U.N. human rights investigators said on 20 December. The deepened sectarian divisions in Syria may diminish prospects for any post-conflict reconciliation even if President Bashar al-Assad is toppled. And the influx of foreign fighters raises the risk of the war spilling into neighboring countries, riven by the same sectarian fault lines that cut through Syria. “As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,” the investigators led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro said in an updated report. As a result, they said, more civilians were seeking to arm themselves in the conflict, which began 21 months ago with street demonstrations demanding democratic reform and evolved into an armed insurgency bent on toppling Assad. “What we found in the last few months is that the minorities that tried to stay away from the conflict have begun arming themselves to protect themselves,” Karen Abuzayd, a member of the group, told a news conference in Brussels. Syrian government forces had increasingly resorted to aerial bombardments, including shelling of hospitals, and evidence suggests that such attacks are “disproportionate”, the report said. The conduct of hostilities by both sides is “increasingly in breach of international law”, it added. “Feeling threatened and under attack, ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides.” (Yahoo, Reuters)
Syrian rebels have captured at least six towns in the central province of Hama, activists say, in an operation aimed at putting pressure on President Bashar al-Assad from the north as insurgents close in on the capital from its southern suburbs. The rebel gains came as the United Nations on 19 December launched what it said was its “largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever”, for $1.5 billion to help millions of Syrians suffering a “dramatically deteriorating” humanitarian situation. “The violence in Syria is raging across the country and there are nearly no more safe areas where people can flee and find safety,” Radhouane Nouicer, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told a news briefing in Geneva. The Syrian opposition has scored significant military and diplomatic gains in recent weeks, capturing several army installations across Syria and securing formal recognition from Western and Arab states for its new coalition. The capture of large parts of Hama province could now give the rebels effective control of a stretch of territory from the northern Turkish border 180 km (110 miles) to the north. (…) Rebels had intended to concentrate their offensive on rural areas before an assault on the city of Hama where some 10,000 people were killed in a 1982 crackdown by ordered by Assad’s father against an armed Islamist uprising. But clashes broke out in the city after authorities launched a wave of arrests, possibly in response to the rebel offensive. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights, an opposition-linked group which monitors violence across the country, said several of the Hama towns overrun by rebels came under bombardment on 19 December. (Reuters)
Bahraini security forces have fired tear gas and stun grenades as crowds of protesters gathered in the capital Manama. Some people were injured and dozens reportedly arrested during the massive ‘Bahrain’s Martyrs Day’ demonstration. ­Some locals have reported witnessing extensive use of teargas, pellet shotguns and sound bombs that have caused severe and critical injuries to protesters. Groups of protesters gathered, chanting slogans in the narrow streets of Manama’s traditional market district. Activists also blocked public streets in preparation for a mass demonstration to mark ‘Bahrain’s Martyrs Day,’ an annual commemoration for two protesters killed in 1994. Local witnesses reported that police made at least 25 arrests, including women. (…) Since 1994, December 17 has been marked by the people as ‘Bahrain’s Martyrs Day,’ following the extrajudicial killing of two Bahrainis during the 90s uprising. Local authorities have set up checkpoints and expanded patrols across Manama ahead of the rallies 17 December. Bahrain’s security forces have been repeatedly condemned for heavy-handed crackdowns on protesters. Though police regularly use violence to disperse crowds of protesters, Bahrainis have continued to protest, demanding greater rights and freedoms.  Nearly 60 people have died in the unrest since the pro-democracy protests, led by the country’s Shia Muslim majority, erupted in February 2011. (RT)
Under the auspices of the Strategic Framework Agreement, the Governments of the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq reaffirmed their commitment to an enduring strategic partnership during the second meeting of the Defense and Security Joint Coordination Committee on December 5-6, 2012 in Baghdad. The meetings held at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense were co-chaired by Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun Al-Dlimi, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and the Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller. Defense and Security Cooperation is one of the cooperation areas that were agreed upon in the Strategic Framework Agreement signed in 2008 between the United States Government and the Government of the Republic of Iraq in order to strengthen cooperation in areas of mutual interest for the two countries. The United States and Iraq discussed efforts to continue strengthening their security cooperation, enhance Iraq’s defense capabilities, modernize Iraq’s military forces, and facilitate both countries’ contributions to regional security.  The two delegations explored U.S.-Iraq training opportunities and Iraq’s participation in regional exercises. The United States and Iraq also discussed the strong and growing foreign military sales program, a symbol of the long-term security partnership envisioned by both countries. The United States stated its support for Iraq’s efforts to meet its defense and security needs. Both delegations reviewed regional security issues.  They exchanged views on the conflict in Syria and its effects on regional stability, with both sides urging an end to the violence and support for a political transition that would represent the will of the Syrian people.  The two sides agreed to continue consulting closely on regional security matters. (…) View the Memorandum of Understanding at:  http://www.defense.gov/news/US-IraqMOUDefenseCooperation.pdf (DoD News Release)
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani arrived in Germany on 20 December for medical treatment for a stroke, leaving behind a potentially messy battle to replace the Kurdish statesman. The 79-year-old former guerrilla, who was admitted to hospital on 17 December, has mediated among Iraqi Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, and in the growing dispute over oil between Baghdad and the country’s autonomous Kurdistan region. The potential disappearance of his steadying hand fuels concerns of a succession crisis and tensions between Arabs and ethnic Kurds spilling into open clashes. Sources told Reuters the president was being treated at Berlin’s Charite hospital and a black Mercedes with Iraqi diplomatic plates was seen leaving a Charite campus on 20 December. Publicly Iraqi politicians wished Talabani a quick recovery, but talk was already turning to his potential departure. (…) A year after the last American troops left Iraq, violence is down from the days of intercommunal slaughter that erupted soon after the 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. But sectarianism still runs deep in Iraq’s politics. “Talabani’s absence from the scene will most likely intensify the political battles,” said Ramzy Mardini, an adjunct fellow at the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut. “The loss of a credible mediator is one thing, but the opportunism felt on one side and the fear held by the other is something that is quite worrisome.” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, is already struggling with Sunni, Kurdish and even Shi’ite rivals over the power-sharing agreement meant to balance posts among religious sects and ethnic Kurds. Talabani has also mediated between Maliki’s Arab-led central government and the Kurdish enclave in the north after the two regions’ troops faced off in areas where they dispute jurisdiction, a major escalation of a feud over oil and land. (Reuters)
When a group of Americans and their heavily armed guards arrived at the Turkish embassy for a party in September, Iraqi police outside blocked their path. Unless they surrendered the weapons held by their security detail in accordance with embassy policy, the Iraqis said, the delegation of U.S. diplomats would not be allowed in. What exactly happened next, two sources who were guests at the event say, is not entirely clear. At least one shot was fired, likely a warning shot by the Iraqi police. The Americans got back into their vehicles and disappeared into the night. After all of the violence and bombing of the last decade, the confrontation went barely noticed. But it points to the way the United States has watched its influence in Iraq dwindle. A year after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, American officials and their vehicles have all but disappeared from the streets of Baghdad. When U.S. officials emerge from their fortresslike embassy compound, they are clearly no longer the de facto rulers of the country they once were. (Reuters)
Snaking their way from Kirkuk, a city 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Baghdad, through Kurdistan and across Turkey’s eastern region of Anatolia to the Mediterranean are pipes that once carried 1.6m barrels a day (b/d) of Iraqi oil to the global market and yielded fat transit fees to Turkey along the way. The infrastructure underpinned the two countries’ mutual dependence. But nowadays the balance of power has shifted. A third party, the Iraqi Kurds, has changed it. It is unclear who will emerge on top. But Iraq’s central government in Baghdad is on the defensive. Wars, saboteurs and, since the 1990s, economic sanctions have left the Iraqi sections of the pipeline system in a mess. Barely a fraction of its capacity is used. One of the two parallel lines stands empty and the source that once fed them, the giant Kirkuk oilfield, is dilapidated. The oil ministry in Baghdad has vague ideas about revamping the pipeline, perhaps to carry crude extracted near Basra, in the far south, though this would need an expensive new pipeline to link both ends of the country. But Turkey is hatching a different plan for its section of the Kirkuk-to-Ceyhan pipeline. Its souring relations with the government in Baghdad have spurred it to cultivate new ties with the Iraqi Kurds’ regional government in Erbil, which oversees the oil and gas that Turkey’s growing economy craves. A wide-ranging energy deal is in the works that will see state-backed Turkish firms and Western oil majors plough money into Kurdish infrastructure and oilfields, connecting them to Turkey and the world beyond. The deal could eventually allow for up to 2m b/d of Kurdish oil exports to go through Turkey. (Economist)
The World Bank pledged $900 million to Iraq over the next four years to help it create jobs, build stronger institutions and improve social inclusion, the global development lender said in a statement on 18 December. Iraq’s government developed the strategy with the World Bank, the private sector, and other stakeholders to focus especially on better management of Iraq’s vast oil wealth and improve its investment climate. The programs will also focus on inclusion of women. Iraq has the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves, and depends on oil wealth to fund 95 percent of its budget. But nine years since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains a state-centric economy and, beyond oil, private businesses have yet to play a significant role in rebuilding the once thriving Middle East nation. Infrastructure remains dilapidated after years of war and economic sanctions, and investment is needed to reform banking, build houses and roads and fix a chronic electricity shortage. Even the oil sector is underperforming due to the country’s logistical bottlenecks and weak infrastructure, eroding investor interest. (Al Arabiya)
At least 25 people have been killed in a series of bomb blasts across Iraq, officials and medical workers say. Car and truck bombs were detonated mainly in ethnically diverse towns and villages in northern Iraq. The area is a source of dispute between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish minority, which governs an autonomous region in the north. The attacks mark a second consecutive day of violence in the region, though it is unclear who is behind them. The bloodiest attack was in a village near the city of Mosul, when a truck bomb exploded killing seven people, officials said. The village is inhabited by families from the Shabak ethno-religious minority group. Two car bombs also exploded in a Shia district of Tuz Khurmatu, a town 70km (45 miles) south of Kirkuk, killing five people and wounding at least 24 others. There were also reports of bombings targeting Shia pilgrims heading to city of Samarra, as well as deadly bomb attacks in the capital Baghdad. On 16 December at least nine people were killed and dozens wounded when blasts struck three Shia Muslim targets in the city of Kirkuk and an office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the town of Jalula, to the south-east. Kirkuk and Jalula are in oil-rich territories that border the area administered by the Kurdish regional government, which claims rights over them. (BBC)
The U.S. assets of four companies and one individual believed to be connected with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, in Iran will be frozen as a result of Treasury Department action announced on 21 December. Three of the companies — the Chemical Industries and Development of Materials Group, Marine Industries Organization, and SAD Import Export Co. — have ties either to Iran’s Defense Industries Organization or the country’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. The former was previously sanctioned by the U.S. in March 2007 for its involvement in the Iranian nuclear program; the latter was previously sanctioned by the U.S. in October of the same year for its WMD proliferation-related activities. The fourth company, Doostan International Co., supports Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization, or AIO, the Treasury Department said. The AIO has been identified as a WMD proliferator by the U.S. For the same reason, it also was blacklisted by the European Union in 2007 and by Japan in 2009. It is reportedly controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. (…) Iran’s economy has been hurting under the sanctions and will likely feel further pain with the new round: On 15 December, the Iranian Economics Minister announced that oil sales for 2012 were half of what they were in 2011, adding up to a loss of $3.8 billion from July to December 2012. (International Business Times)
Arguing that further sanctions “are unlikely to stop Iran’s nuclear pursuits,” a group of Iran experts and senior former officials are calling on the White House to pursue realistic, “serious, sustained negotiations” with Tehran that they say are the best chance to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The letter to President Obama, from 24 signatories whose professional careers have often been marked by dealing firsthand with the thorny Iran issue, suggests that a diplomatic deal can ease the West’s greatest fears about Iran’s nuclear program – but only if Washington revises its position in nuclear talks that are expected to resume within weeks.  “A diplomacy-centric approach is the only option that can prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and a war,” write the 24 signatories in the 6 December letter only now made public. Success will require “reciprocal” steps and an “appropriate and proportional paring back of international sanctions on Iran,” they write. The letter proposes a deal that Tehran has signaled repeatedly in the past year it is willing to accept, given the right circumstances: stopping production of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is a few technical steps away from bomb-grade; and allowing a more intrusive inspections regime. In exchange, Tehran wants recognition of its right to enrich for peaceful purposes and a lifting of sanctions. But the appeal to Mr. Obama comes as Congress prepares to enact further sanctions against Iran in coming days. And news reports indicate that the U.S. has already decided not to fundamentally change a negotiating stance, rejected by Iran in previous rounds of talks this year, which demands Iran make concessions before the US entertains any prospect of sanctions relief. (Christian Science Monitor)
Iran is becoming increasingly creative in dodging Western sanctions, managing to sell a rising volume of fuel oil to generate revenue equal to up to a third of its crude exports, which have been badly hit by restrictions. Compared with the first half of the year, Iran has on average exported more fuel oil per month since July, when European Union oil and shipping insurance sanctions came into effect and more than halved its crude exports. (…) EU sanctions prohibit the import, purchase and transport of Iranian petroleum products in an attempt to curb revenues that might be channelled into a nuclear programme that Iran says is for peaceful purposes but the West fears is to enable it to make weapons. Even for companies with no link to the EU, sanctions on financing and shipping insurance discourage would-be customers. Iran uses fuel oil for electricity generation and to power ships, but unlike other more valuable refined products such as diesel or gasoline, it has a surplus to export from the 70,000 tonnes a day it produces. The July sanctions slashed the OPEC member’s fuel oil sales initially, traders and analysts say, as term customers cancelled contracts, but sales have since rebounded thanks to the innovative methods of Gulf-based middlemen and Iran’s market-savvy oil officials. The Islamic Republic sold an average 648,000 tonnes of fuel oil monthly from July to October, up from 636,000 tonnes for January to June, according to data from a company that tracks Iran’s oil shipments. (…) Using ship-to-ship transfers, discharging and loading at remote ports and blending the Iranian fuel oil with other fuels to disguise the origin have become popular tactics for the Gulf-based middlemen and helped keep sales steady, several trading and industry sources familiar with the region said. Data from the firm tracking Iran shipments showed sharp fluctuations in fuel oil flows, which sources said could be attributed to shipping delays and tanker availability. Exports dived to zero in July and then jumped to 1.389 million tonnes in August, with a third of the sales going to the Middle East. (…) Iran is no stranger to international sanctions, and one common tactic to skirt them has been to cooperate with small Gulf-based oil traders who act as middlemen for buyers who might be unaware that the cargo is of Iranian origin. Several Middle Eastern traders said they had been approached by small UAE-based companies offering a type of fuel oil dubbed in the market as “Iraqi special blend” that included a combination of different fuel oil blends from the Middle East, or with an origin described as Iraqi. (Reuters)
Iran plans to hold military drills in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil and gas shipping route, by next March, Iranian media quoted a commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as saying on 17 December. IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi told reporters on 17 December that the drill would be held by the end of the current Iranian year, which ends on March 20, but gave no details on timing or what the exercise would involve. (…) Iranian officials have often said that Iran could block the strait – through which 40 percent of the world’s sea-borne oil exports pass – if it comes under military attack over its disputed nuclear program. A heavy Western naval presence in the Gulf is a big impediment to any attempt to block the waterway but both sides have staged maneuvers in the area this year to demonstrate their military capabilities. Iranian threats to block Hormuz helped put upward pressure on oil prices in early 2012, softening the blow to Iranian government revenues dealt by a severe reduction in crude export volumes caused by punitive Western sanctions. No other countries have threatened to bar the narrow waterway between Iran and Oman, but Iranian military leaders say their presence helps ensure the safe passage of millions of barrels a day of oil out of the Gulf. (Reuters)
At least eleven people have been killed near Pakistan-Iran border in Balochistan’s Gawadar district while trying to illegally cross into neighbouring Iran in two vehicles, Geo News reported on 22 December. Provincial Interior Secretary said that the 11 people were killed in Pakistani area near Iran border. He said that they were killed in Sansar, a mountainous region near Gawadar port city. The secretary didn’t elaborate as to who were behind the killing. However he said that the deceased included Pakistani and Afghan nationals. Geo News correspondent said that the bodies were being shifted to Gawadar Civil Hospital. (The International News)
Some $122 billion (150 trillion rials) will be invested in Iran’s refineries by the end of the Fifth Five-Year Economic Development Plan (March 2016), deputy Iranian oil minister said on 21 December. The needed money will be financed by foreign and domestic investors, the Fars News Agency quoted Alireza Zeighami as saying. Half of this amount has been already invested in the sector, he explained. The development operation of Lavan and Tabriz oil refineries’ gasoline production units will be completed by the end of current Iranian calendar year (March 19, 2013), he said. According to Zeighami, the development operation of Isfahan and Bandar Abbas oil refineries’ gasoline production units will also come on stream by April, 2013 and March 2014, respectively. Zeighami earlier this month had said that, Iran’s gasoline production capacity will surpass 70 million liters per day by the end of April, 2013. (HIspanic Business)


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LDESP Staff
ldesp_staff@nps.edu

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